There has recently been much discussion on English-language Chinese websites of the Shanghai dialect.
Qian Nairong, a linguist with Shanghai University, explained to Xinhua that all regional dialects now face a challenge: “With rapid social development over recent years, an increasing number of migrants with different dialects can be found all over China. However, people are encouraged to speak Mandarin between each other, threatening the existence of dialects." In addition, he worries that in the era of keyboards, dialects will become extinct as people type characters with unified pinyin, which is based on Mandarin. To counter this trend, Qian and his team have developed character input software using the Shanghai dialect.
Others are also doing their bit, including a lexicographer who has compiled a Shanghai dialect dictionary. Apparently, for words relating to agriculture, now rarely heard in Shanghai, he had to seek the advice of old-aged farmers.
Meanwhile, the on-line English-language versions of several Chinese newspapers are reporting that a new novel, Blossoms (Fan Hua), by Jin Yucheng, is making waves, partly because it is written in the Shanghai dialect.
The novel depicts the lives of Shanghai people in two periods: from the 1960s to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, and from the 1980s to 2000. It consists of many independent stories, which interweave as the lives of the characters unfold.
Why did Jin choose to write in dialect? He told Global Times: "Chinese literature is getting monotonous both in language and form. I want to be special with my own language.” He also pointed out that for writers beyond Beijing, Mandarin is often a second language: “I found it much easier to write dialogues in my native language."
This begs an obvious question: can Blossoms be read outside Shanghai? Jin was careful to ensure that his language was similar enough to Mandarin to allow readers from other parts of China to understand him. He told Global Times: "If you want your works to get read, first of all, it should be understandable for readers in other regions. It is not to amuse oneself.” He explained to China Daily that he avoided some slang and dialect words difficult to express in the written language: "The language of Blossoms is not exactly pure Shanghai dialect. You have to think in the context of the Shanghai dialect and recreate the language so that readers outside of Shanghai can understand it.” He explained the task he’d set himself was difficult: “Many things that can be expressed in (Mandarin) cannot be said in the dialect and I had to write in a roundabout way. It means more preparation and challenges."
Has he succeeded in writing a dialect novel comprehensible beyond the dialect’s boundaries? Zheng Li, an editor with a Shanghai publishing house, certainly thinks he has, and that he’s done so whilst retaining an authentic sense of place. He is quoted in China Daily as saying Jin’s readers can: “taste the intense aroma of the Shanghai flavour.”
Blossoms is not, to my knowledge, available in English.